It’s well-documented that Kelly Slater doesn’t like morning heats. Kelly will happily stay awake past midnight, investigating conspiracy theories online and texting friends in different time zones, but in the hours after dawn he likes his shuteye. Unfortunately for Kelly his round one loss yesterday meant that he was scheduled to surf the first heat of the morning against Reef McIntosh today.

When Kelly showed up at the contest site, a lumpy new West swell lurched uninvitingly over the reef at Pipe. The wave faces were chattered by a side-shore breeze and chunks of side-wash twisted through the barrels like marine booby traps. Bede Durbidge coming in from the pre contest early gave it a fair evaluation. “I only got one close-out, but it could be pumping later when the swell fills in and the tide goes out.”

Kelly didn’t want to surf (he later made it very clear to the press gallery that he wanted to wait till later) but the contest had been given the green light by commissioner Kieren Perrow and despite the early hour and the drizzle a few thousand fans had shown up on the beach to watch maestro do his thing.

For thirty minutes they were overwhelmingly disappointed. Kelly scratched into closeouts, struggled for rhythm and looked nothing like a seven time Pipe Master. As a melancholic U2 track wailed from a fan’s portable speaker on the beach, it seemed Bono was going to supply a fitting soundtrack for a highly anti-climactic exit from the world title race.

Things got even harder when Michel Bourez and Makai McNamara paddled out in their overlapping heat. Kelly had devised the over-lapping system back in 2010, now it seemed his creation would be part of his undoing. With twenty minutes to go and four guys in the water, Kelly was chasing the scraps in a lineup that didn’t look like it had a decent wave to offer.

The turn around was dramatic. At the 27-minute mark a confidence-building 6.67 under priority put him in the lead. Then at eight minutes he dug his busted toe hard into the deck and rode bronco style through a warbling backwash that bucked him in the barrel. By the time he pulled off the wave with a flashy, fly-away kickout it was clear that Kelly had once again climbed out of hell on a rainbow. And as much as anyone might want Mick or Medina to win the title, many of us were grateful that Slater was going to keep this fascinating three-man showdown alive. By the time he scored the 9.57 with six minutes to go, Kelly was in exhibition mode, popping 360’s on the backwash after weaving through sledgehammer chandeliers in the barrel.

Amongst the salivating press, which included one misplaced journalist who asked him about his bodyboard move on the last wave, Kelly looked more relieved than happy. Meanwhile his comments suggested that both the heat and the world title scenario had proven taxing. “I think I needed that one for my confidence. That’s only my third session out here this year so I needed to get back into the swing of things … It was a little nerve wracking to go almost thirty minutes without getting a wave over a three. I think what that tells you is that the conditions weren’t that good… I was just trying to stay focussed and not let bad thoughts come into my head. It’s real easy after you have a lot of bad waves to start thinking negative.”

Kelly-insert A smiling Kelly Slater addresses the press gallery after sending a warning signal to Medina and Fanning.

When asked if he was excited by the challenge of claiming a title when he was statistically the outsider, Kelly sounded more like an over-worked executive than a guy turned on by the thought of climbing a proverbial Everest.

“There’s definitely a level of excitement but of course you’d rather not have that stress. In terms of what we do it’s a lot of stress as far as my career goes. You think more about that when you’re not in the water. When you’re in the water you just try and stay in the moment and if you can pull some magic out of the hat it feels pretty special.”

Despite the anxiety, Kelly still had time to for opportunistic quips. When someone boldly asked him what advice he’d give Medina right now, Kelly jibed, “Don’t show up for your next heat.”

Jokes aside Kelly’s performance demonstrated that he is in good enough form to win the event and the world title. There was no trouble from the most talked about toe in surfing and this morning’s heat was definitely a warning signal to Medina and Mick Fanning. Astute observer and three-time Pipe Masters champion, Tom Carroll, explained it well. “At Pipe it’s not a nicely ordered thing. The order is that the gate’s wide open and you’ve got to keep diving through it and keep your mind as clear and open as possible at all times.”

Mick and Medina will have to keep creating opportunities and seizing them because as Tommy indicates there is no doubt Kelly is poised to swoop.

“Kelly’s commitment is on a totally different level. He showed that if those guys do stuff up he’ll win it, he’ll step right in – once he gets a little bit and sniff at it. … He was just so clearly on his game. If those guys make one little slip he’s going to dive on it.”

After a half day of colossal wipeouts, desperately low heat scores and heroic drops there are still three surfers in the world title race. If you’re a sports fan who thrives on a close contest, it’s certainly hard not to be happy about that.